Friday, January 10, 2014

Caribbean Children’s Literature 2014: the past, not an exercise in frustration, but rather a stepping stone to the future?

I am delighted  that Andrew Blackman, noted author, considered my blog one of the 20 best in the Caribbean. My delight is not only for the recognition, but also because it would suggest that there is an interest in children’s literature, or put another way, blogs about children’s literature are of interest to normal human beings.

Now in the past,  as those who read my blog know,  I have had much angst over:

1.       The lack of opportunities for getting books published in the region;

2.       The lack of a reading habit/ interest in local children’s material;

3.       The lack  of interest in the children’s literature of any one territory in any other territory.

 Therefore I wanted to see  how all of this looked from the aspect of 2013 entering 2014?

Getting published: Whereas we writers who have been toiling in children’s literature for years,  looking at the big picture, continue to be concerned about outlets for publishing, young, new writers, do have other opportunities now. We have two young publishers, Tanya Batson-Savage of Blue Moon Publishing and Kellie Magnus of Jackmandora in Jamaica. Also here in Jamaica, Carlong Publishers, traditionally a textbook publisher, has continued its children’s literature Sand Pebbles Series and has two books slated for publication this year. LMH, a trade book publisher, also continues to produce children’s literature. Those authors doing self publishing in the region seem to be more confident and there seems to be  greater acceptance of this as a worthwhile outlet.

We have recognized  editors/publishing managers like Joanne Johnson in Trinidad, who put together and edited the Island Fiction Series for Macmillan (see her blog: Island Fiction Series Editor). I, myself, have done this for the Ministry of Education here with Literacy 1-2-3. There is Joanne C. Hillhouse in Antigua & Barbuda, whose  Wadadli Pen runs a writing course for young people under 18, and gives awards. In  Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago small publishing houses seem to publish books from time to time. Nothing wrong with that. Publishing in the Caribbean  continues to be a fledgling industry in many ways, and we have to work with it in any way we can.

This is not an exhaustive list, because I do not know everything that is happening in the other territories, but it is a very hopeful list. So 2014 may well be fine. And if we add to this the fact there is now Amazon and other sites to which we may upload our children’s books, all may be looking up. We do need visibility on these sites, but perhaps one of the many young entrepreneurs will eventually take this on. So one area of angst solved?

The reading habit/ lack of interest in local books. Aha. Big sigh. Well Jamaicans don’t read if they can help it. Sweeping statement, but I’m Jamaican so I can say it without fear of being challenged. Tell me I’m wrong, if you can.  Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys still prominent in the stores along with new books from the USA and the UK; Enid Blyton still licking hot. Unbelievable, as she was the one who led me to start writing, so that I could present my children with other than the golliwog as the villain of the piece. (So maybe I should celebrate her). And of course there has been much change with the present-day books under her name; I actually saw a black character on the cover of one of her books.  And even though  Barbados  has bookshops connected to supermarkets (You can enter from the supermarket!  I’d never get my shopping done! I’d be lost in books!), which is a testament to their reading habit, I still did not find local children’s books in the bookstore I checked. When I asked for Caribbean children’s books, the shop assistant  led me to the CXC set-books. I actually found the local children’s books at the airport store which sells souvenirs.

 I suspect, therefore, that throughout the region the situation is much the same. Overseas books trump local books in demand and in price;  although not in content or packaging. Old habits die hard.

So what am I going to do about this?  Revitalized by me reading in Barbados last November, I’m going to make myself a real nuisance by calling schools and teachers’ colleges here and offer to read. I think some  see us as a nuisance as we interrupt ‘normal schooling’. I have to do this before I run out of steam, and begin to feel embarrassed; ‘like who you think you are, to think we need you to read?’ Important Jamaican point of view. That might take care of that angst.

I’m even going to include books from other territories. I have some from Barbados which I love. You knew that, didn’t you? (Nothing like a half Barbadian Grandma). But the books are good. This leads us to the next painful  angst.

Reading books from other territories:  We read set-books set in the various territories for CXC, but that is probably an aberration related to exams. That sounds a bit cynical.  But seriously, if our students read Caribbean books  for CXC and enjoy them, why can’t they read them in their younger years? Is it that we have not tried hard enough? No, we have tried.  We have tried numerous times to bring our territories together. For example:

1.       Did you know that there was a UNDP/UNESCO/AGFUND Multi-Island Project which published supplementary readers (story books and non-fiction)  in 1984? There were writers from many of the  islands. I was very young in the story of books so I had nothing to do with this project. But surely we all must have thought that would be the beginning of the sharing of the literature.

2.       Did you know that in 1991, under the auspices of UNESCO, we started the Caribbean Co-Publication Programme for children’s books? I was the Chairman of the Provisional Committee for the Caribbean. Others on that first committee were Edward Toulon,  Dominica, Anson Gonzalez, outstanding pioneer of Caribbean writing, Trinidad and Tobago, and Lucilla Benjamin, Antigua. There were committees in each territory. I actually communicated with the other territories by regular post ( olden days before PCs and email).  Some territories produced books, but all in all, the initiative floundered because of lack of funding.  And we were sure that would be the sharing of the literature. We did not realise that perhaps it was a greater challenge than we could overcome.

3.       In 2000, I was facilitator of a CARICOM 10-day workshop here in Jamaica. There were participants from most of the territories in the Caribbean. We had a number of presenters, specialists  in various aspects of children’s writing,  illustrators/designers. I can still remember what we considered the best story, one from Belize. Loved it! This was it now! At last the sharing of the literature! Funding for publishing the book of stories coming out of the workshop was supposed to come from an international agency. It never materialized. I kept the stories for some time, hoping . . .

Meanwhile,  many of the territories continued to do their own thing. For example, in Jamaica the Children’s Writers Circle, formed in 1983 by Pat Persaud and Billy Hall, continued successfully for many years, using sponsorship to publish books. I know that the Trinidad group of the 1991 initiative was at one time very active, and Julie Morton of Morton Salvatori Publishers, had her own publishing house in Trinidad also.  I’ve run children’s writing workshops in islands like Curacao and Dominica, either funded by international or local organizations. Curacao had by  then already produced some books in papiamento.

However the products from the various countries have not reached the wider Caribbean. I have constantly despaired about this. Angst!

And as I watch the Caribbean, especially now with its latest vexed exchange of words, I begin to realise that nobody can force us to be together in any endeavour. The English publishers can publish Pan-Caribbean books and we’ll buy them (and I’m grateful for that because they are still Caribbean books written by us)  but I don’t think we have got  to the point of really wanting to share our children’s books, or perhaps other things, for that matter.  And I am not blaming it on slavery or colonialism, the usual ‘whipping boys’. The Caribbean is a vibrant place with a vibrant people.  We will do what we will do when we will do it.

On a positive note, The Bocas Lit Fest, the book festival  developed by Trinidad and Tobago in 2011, has activities for children and indeed produced a book of stories written by children.  Moreover,  the Burt Award for Young Adult Literature has been housed with Bocas Lit Fest and will be offered for the first time this year.   

It has dawned on me, therefore, that a lot of publishing is going on in the region, both by  publishers and  individuals; the Ministry of Education here has continued its outstanding even if sporadic performance.  (After all, we are only five million people in the English speaking Caribbean).

Those early efforts in the past were perhaps not failures to cooperate, but merely stepping stones to the future, and indeed show our determination to produce our own children’s literature, no matter the stumbling blocks.

Children’s literature may well be alive and well, even if not in the construct those of us who had such great hopes for regional integration in this area anticipated. And so for 2014, I hope that I will give up the angst; help whenever I can, and just write and get published where/when I can, and allow the region to evolve as it will. Who knows, we might even surprise ourselves!

Apologies to anyone who feels they should have been mentioned. This really is not an exhaustive overview. However, I will gladly include additional information and make changes if needed.


  1. Great post, Diane. Interesting to read about all the efforts to have more of other countries' books read throughout the Caribbean. One thing that struck me about Francis Escayg's "Escape from Silk Cotton Forest" and Debbie Jacob's "Legend of St Ann's Flood" was that the mythical creatures in these books would be totally unfamiliar to Jamaican children. Is River Mumma an unfamiliar figure in other Caribbean Countries? Perhaps children should learn more about these characters in school - or in a school visit! I have always been warmly welcomed when I go to read at schools. I too plan to make more school visits and use some of Mara Menzies storytelling techniques in my readings.

  2. So did you do any school readings? I think it's a great idea. There is an official reading week at our school with a reading competition. I think it was last month. I'm sure the schools would welcome you.

  3. When I said our school, I meant my daughter's school.